Topics: Dr. Yang Hengjun; China visit; Israel conflict
0810 AEDT
1 November 2023

Patricia Karvelas: The sudden release of Australian-Chinese journalist, Cheng Lei, after three years in detention has raised hopes that another Australian jailed in China, Yang Hengjun, could also be freed. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the friends and family of the Australian writer say Yang Hengjun’s health is declining and his situation has become critical. They’re pleading with the Federal Government to intervene before it’s too late, in the hopes that Anthony Albanese will raise the issue when he visits Beijing and meets XI Jinping at the end of the week. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister; he joined me a little earlier. Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning. It’s good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: Yang Hengjun’s family says he will perish in prison without intervention. What power should the Albanese Government be exerting to try and get him released?

Simon Birmingham: The case of Dr. Yang Hengjun should be one of the top priorities raised by the Prime Minister on his trip to China. This is a situation, where an Australian citizen who is effectively being arbitrarily and indefinitely detained. He has now spent more than four years detained by China without any transparency around the nature of his charges and with continuous delays in terms of the sentencing of him and that delay most recently saw another deferral of any potential sentencing through until January next year. So, this is obviously taking an enormous toll on him, on his family and it ought to be raised as one of the highest priorities by the Prime Minister during his visit.

Patricia Karvelas: After the release of Cheng Lei, you urged the Government to use all available diplomatic means to secure his return and ensure his wellbeing. What does that actually mean, though? I mean, you say the PM should raise it as a priority in his conversations when he goes to China. What else could the Government be doing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the Government should be making clear that in terms of the aspiration of stabilising relations between Australia and China, it will not be possible for Australians to believe those relations have been fully stabilised whilst an Australian citizen continues to face such detention – and detention in circumstances, for those who get the chance to read the letter released by the family of Dr. Yang Hengjun, are dreadful circumstances; the deprivation of access to natural light; the concerns about his failing health; these issues are taking a mounting toll on him, although he shows in that, remarkable resilience. And it is that resilience which is to be admired but his plight is one that should be seeing the Government being clear that there are consequences to how China is perceived across the Australian community, as well as the ability of the Australian Government to fully re-engage in areas of potential cooperation with China while such action is being taken against an Australian citizen.

Patricia Karvelas: The Prime Minister will, of course, meet with President XI Jinping this weekend. It’s the first Prime Ministerial visit for many years. What else should he be getting out of this trip?

Simon Birmingham: There are a number of both bilateral and important regional and global matters that the Prime Minister should be pursuing. In addition to the case of Dr. Yang Hengjun, he should continue to raise the imposition of trade sanctions which have amounted to an attempt at economic coercion by China against Australia. Our wine producers shouldn’t have to wait for a five-month review to learn whether the sanctions, the tariffs being applied against them, will be lifted. Those tariffs are clearly in breach of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. It’s no coincidence this review has only commenced after China received the initial report and findings of the World Trade Organisation, which I’m certain would have been a case of the independent umpire calling out China’s actions for what it is – a breach of WTO rules; a breach of free trade agreements and ultimately an attempt at economic coercion. And so those issues should continue to be raised along with other matters of trade dispute. Then, of course, there are regional concerns, particularly regional stability in the South China Sea. We have seen deeply concerning and provocative actions by China in its engagement with the Philippines and those types of actions do create a real risk in terms of the potential for a mistake to occur and with a mistake there being a risk of military conflict or otherwise, which we all wish to see avoided. And so urging China to withdraw, to respect international findings on the South China Sea and to, in that regard, engage in ways that are more likely and conducive to the peace and stability of our region. And then, of course, global concerns that have been raised by the ASIO chief about cyber espionage and ongoing human rights concerns in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere.

Patricia Karvelas: I want to move to the Middle East crisis and war. Penny Wong, the Foreign Minister, spoke in the last couple of days and said the world will not accept continuing civilian deaths. Do you agree with that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, tragically, there are civilian deaths that occur as a result of war and the war to remove Hamas from a position in which it was able to strike Israel and undertake the appalling terrorist attacks of October 7, which saw the single-largest death toll of Jewish people in a day since the Holocaust, is a war that Israel is fully entitled to wage and to see Hamas disabled and removed from the capacity to undertake such strikes in the future and to repeat those sorts of terrorist atrocities. But of course, Israel needs to engage in that war in ways that seek to minimise the loss of civilian lives as much as possible and continue to target the Hamas infrastructure capabilities and people as much as possible.

Patricia Karvelas: A thousand children are dying a week. Is that acceptable?

Simon Birmingham: It’s a tragedy, Patricia. It is a tragedy and the loss of innocent lives, be they Palestinian lives, Jewish lives or any other lives is always a tragedy. And it’s hard to comprehend in terms of the heartbreak that has been caused by Hamas’ actions and the consequent actions to remove Hamas from power. But removing Hamas from power is a prerequisite for ensuring that Israel doesn’t face the type of attacks again in the future and a prerequisite for Palestinian peoples having a chance of peace, a chance of leadership that could engage in negotiations that we would all wish one day in the future to see Israelis and Palestinians able to live peacefully side by side.

Patricia Karvelas: But do you agree with the with the idea, because I still don’t think you’ve really addressed this, with respect, that the world will not accept continuing civilian deaths at this scale?

Simon Birmingham: There is no doubt that there will continue to be huge scrutiny in relation to this conflict. Indeed, arguably, Israel has faced disproportionate scrutiny around human rights issues compared with many, many other challenges right around the world. And the world does expect Israel to act in ways consistent with international law, and it does expect them to wage this war in ways that target Hamas, its infrastructure….

Patricia Karvelas: …so if a-thousand children are dying a week, how can it meet that criteria, Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I fully expect that many, more qualified than me, will seek to assess in terms of the laws broken by Hamas issues in terms of how this conflict and war unfold. But we shouldn’t be drawing any type of moral equivalence between Israel in their efforts to try to remove a terrorist actor who initiated this conflict in such bloody and brutal means.

Patricia Karvelas: But we’re talking about the ramifications – a Palestinian child or a Jewish child – neither are responsible for the actions of the people in charge, right? You’d have to agree with that.

Simon Birmingham: And as I said before, whether it is an innocent Palestinian life, an innocent Jewish life, or any other innocent life, the loss of those lives out of war is always a tragedy and these are heartbreaking circumstances, but….

Patricia Karvelas: ..and isn’t it then….

Simon Birmingham: …tragically, also the loss of innocent lives….

Patricia Karvelas: …incumbent on us to be calling for that to not only be minimised, but to say that a thousand children a week is not acceptable?

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I would dearly wish to not see any child face the loss of their life in war-torn situations and that includes this conflict along with any other. But there is also the reality that the loss of innocent lives does occur in wars. How those wars are fought is important and of course, in this case, why the war is being fought should not be forgotten by anybody in terms of that need to remove a terrorist entity like Hamas.

Patricia Karvelas: There’s some breaking news that this happened this morning. Israel has carried out an air strike on a Gaza refugee camp, saying it killed a top Hamas commander, but it’s in a refugee camp. Is that acceptable?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I haven’t had the chance to see any details of this and obviously how that airstrike was undertaken, the actions of it I would need to assess. I’m very conscious that breaking news a couple of weeks ago was of an alleged airstrike against a hospital in Gaza that was allegedly occurred by Israel, but as facts unfolded….

Patricia Karvelas: …yeah, Simon Birmingham, thank you.